Berlin's New Train Station A Glass Armadillo for Germany's Capital

Berlin's new main train station -- the biggest in Europe -- opens this week. The €700-million railway project has several innovations including extra quiet tracks and high-tech loudspeakers, but for many its construction remains contentious.

Hany Azer's finest hour came on a humid summer night. The man in charge of building Berlin's new Central Station had promised an unprecedented construction spectacle that both the media and locals wanted to see. The chief engineer and his crew had to lower two massive girder towers, weighing no less than 2,500 tons, across the glass vault of the station like a gigantic drawbridge.

But just as the towers were lowered, one of the most violent storms in years hit Germany's capital. Gusts of wind raged through the building site. Around 5,000 bolts of lightning ripped through the sky above Berlin, one of them causing Azer's mechanical controls to fail. Soaked to the skin, knees shaking, the boss gave the order: "Keep at it!"

Azer only started to worry when it looked as if the two halves of the tower bridge might not align properly -- instead of easing into a millimeter-perfect fit, as planned. "If the two sections had fallen onto the glass roof -- unimaginable," Azer reflects today. It would have been the end of the largest roof in Germany, a huge glass structure assembled in just four months. Gone, too, would be Berlin's biggest photovoltaic system, a network of solar cells mounted into the glass itself and designed to produce 160,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. Luckily for Azer, no damage was done. But that July night in 2005, when catastrophe seemed so near, has somehow been typical of the entire "Berlin Central Station" project. Long before there was any sign of building on the sprawling construction site, Berliners were heaping scorn on a project thought be be a "grave for billions" (in the end, the station cost around €700 million, or $894 million). And when Hartmut Mehdorn, the head of the German national railway operator Deutsche Bahn, appointed Azer to lead the prestige project in May 2001, it had already seen previous four construction foremen. A naturalized German citizen born in Egypt, Azer soon came to notice the "huge weight on my shoulders" that would eventually give him a heart attack.

Mehdorn's plans for the grand station were contentious from the start. First there were infamous battles with the architect, Meinhard von Gerkan, who was infuriated at the railway executive's bean-counting and attempts to trim the project by chopping off part of the roof and replacing the vaulted ceilings.

Then West Berliners were outraged that it would supplant their beloved -- if cramped and dingy -- Zoo Station, which served the western part of the city throughout the Cold War. Totally unsuited to the needs of a reunited Berlin, it will be demoted to a local transfer point in the city's transportation network.

Other residents questioned the need for "Europe's largest cross station," as Deutsche Bahn's PR calls the overlapping structure with tracks running both north-south and east-west. The gleaming hulk of glass and steel now dominates a long empty part of Berlin just to the north of the recently built Chancellery and offices for German parliamentarians. But the Egyptian-German foreman Azer thinks of his bombastic building as a "pyramid" for the modern age. Sooner or later, the Berliners will learn to love the gigantic glass armadillo, which looks crouched and ready to pounce. Armor-plated with 9,000 separate sections, the station's curvature means no two pieces of glass are the same size.

Trading Zoo Station for "Vertigo Station"

A touch of paint here, a little scrub there is all that remains to be done for Friday's grand opening. But travelers who suffer from vertigo may have trouble dealing with the 25-meter drop from the upper east-west platform to the lower north-south axis. The builders clearly have no issues with heights, since it seems hard to turn anywhere without peering into the abyss.

On the other hand, changing trains has never been easier. The Berlin Central Station is so open that it would be a feat to get lost. Azer has dubbed the structure a "station of innovation." The whole building is a collection of individually crafted pieces and special attention to detail:

  • Grooves in the floor help blind passengers find their way to the platforms. For further assistance, raised numbers and Braille have been integrated into metal signs on the hand rails.
  • Travelers will be spared some of the noise and bustle associated with train stations, since the approaching high-speed ICE and regional trains slide up to the platform with not much more than whisper. The tracks are embedded in concrete rather than the more commonplace gravel, reducing noise to a minimum.
  • Engineers have also come up with nifty precautions against unforeseen accidents. If a train derailment, it will automatically slot into an extra track. Compact walls of concrete are in place to prevent the bulky carriages tipping onto adjacent tracks.
  • A suspension system in the body of the platforms radically reduces vibration as the trains -- each weighing several hundred tons -- roll in. Thanks to this technology, the buildings close by at Potsdamer Platz and the government quarter won't shudder every minute as the locomotives trundle through.

But of all the fancy innovations, the fanciest may be the loudspeaker system. It's almost impossible to make sense of the garbled, barely audible announcements in most of Germany's train stations. But in Berlin's Central Station, sound engineers have created speaker system that make the computer-automated announcements crystal clear and understandable.

Liberated from the horror of missing their trains, passengers may relax, and the station staff may even shed the brusque manner for which Berlin's "service" personnel are so infamous. Extra lessons in patience and friendliness aren't on the agenda -- but at least employees are being schooled in linguistically challenging situations which may arise with foreign guests.

At least a ride in one of the six glass panorama lifts should help compensate for grumpy service. The view through the formidable glass entrance is also unparalleled in Germany. Fifteen years ago, visitors would have looked down on an wasteland here; now they can see the impressive new heart of the city, including the Federal Chancellery, the Holocaust Memorial, the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz. It's a view some 300,000 expected voyagers each day will experience beginning this weekend.

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